Thomas Sydenham (1624-1689) was a physician recognised as a founder of clinical medicine and epidemiology who discovered Sydenham’s Chorea aka St Vitus Dance
What did he suggest caused illnesses? Humoural imbalance.
South East London’s Sydenham area is named after him and humour has been restored there, at least.
(That is an example of why I am not a comedian.)
Betsy, the club’s meeter-and-greeter…
The Poodle Club has re-opened for comedy in Sydenham. The club first opened in 2017 but, of course, due to the Coronavirus pandemic, had to close in 2020.
It’s run by indefatigable dog-lover Karen O Novak and her husband Darren Ball.
Unusually for UK comedy clubs, it’s not just some room in a pub; they own the lease and it was purpose-built as a comedy venue.
“Why call it The Poodle Club?” I asked Karen.
“Betsy, of course,” she told me.
Betsy is a tiny poodle: a very enthusiastic and much-loved meeter-and-greeter of audiences at the club.
My last blog was a chat with stand-up performer David Mills backstage at the sold-out grand post-pandemic re-opening of The Poodle Club.
In it, I used the word “unique” about the club. Because it is.
Karen O Novak and David Mills back in 2014
You can choose to share a toilet with Liberace…
The revitalised post-pandemic Poodle Club has a new state-of-the-art ventilation system which delivers 500 litres of fresh air per second.
It also aims to have an equal number of male and female comedians and to promote LGBTQ+ and non-white comics in order, says Karen, “to raise up voices that are sometimes lost in the traditionally straight, male-dominated comedy scene”.
The policy, she claims, has drawn an audience that is 70% female.
The club’s decor – like Betsy the Poodle – shows signs of quirky character.
…or visit Bloo Hawaii in the other poodle loo
There are two unisex toilets in the club: one lavishly decorated as a tribute to Liberace and one equally lavishly dedicated to Elvis Presley’s Blue Hawaii.
Despite being clearly marked as unisex, Darren tells me that, overwhelmingly – and for no known reason – men tend to go into the Liberace WC and women into the Elvis WC.
The audiences on the sold-out opening weekend came into the club beaming with joy – partly because of the warm welcome from Betsy, partly because of the club-wide OTT decor which greeted them and partly, I imagine, just because they were able to go to local comedy again.
There’s a plethora of poodle ornaments and ‘kooky’ knick-knacks crowding behind the bar…
“How,” I asked Karen, “did the good people of Sydenham react during the club’s pandemic closure?”
“There were,” she told me, “non-stop emails, weeping, people throwing themselves under buses.”
“Normal for Sydenham, then,” I said. “Has Betsy greeted audiences since the start in 2017?”
Poodle pooches are all over the place in this lovingly-decorated oasis of the comedy arts…
“Before Betsy,” said Karen, “there was Snoopadoo. She used to hold court here at the bar, but she was an elderly lady poodle and passed away at 19 years old.”
“Were Betsy and Snoopadoo related?”
The poodle obsession runs deep, though. In the backstage dressing room, even the signs on the wall board are held up with little pink poodle pins.
The club has performances every Friday and Saturday – during most other days it lies fallow.
But, ever-enterprising, Karen and Darren are running the First Annual ‘Sydenham Comedy Festival’ at the Poodle Club for a whole week this year – 10th-18th June.
The Festival will feature 20 one-hour shows – a series of Edinburgh Fringe previews by the likes of Arthur Smith, Paul Foot, Tony Law and Shazia Mirza..
The Poodle Club in Sydenham is far from Barking…
Like I said, I’m no comedian, but I know what I like.
I like originality. And The Poodle Club certainly has that.
The never-less-than-extravagantly costumed Ada Campe performing on stage at The Poodle Club
JULIETTE: How we define ourselves and the labels we use. I was labelled as ‘engaged’ last year and I have now moved to the label of ‘single’.
JOHN: But not ‘vacant’.
JULIETTE: (LAUGHS) No. Certainly not my mind. There’s too much to think about. I started using a dating app after I broke up with my fiancé and, when I was filling out the dating profile, I realised they tend to ask you to tick either/or boxes:
It got me thinking about the extremes we sometimes get pushed towards – optimism/pessimism – introvert/extrovert – whereas we are maybe somewhere in the middle or are both at various times.
In the past, I have been defined by a whole list of mental health conditions and sometimes, in previous shows, I may have defined myself through the mental conditions I have, like a ‘mental health comedy girl’. Whereas, in fact, there’s a lot more to it.
Juliette Burton: in last year’s Butterfly Effect
I have been writing this show for ages and the main thing I want it to be is… well, I did a national tour of the previous show Butterfly Effect and, in that, I started testing out material for this show.
I genuinely think the new show is the funniest I have ever done and the only thing I want to be defined as now is funny.
JOHN: Do the dating apps ask what you do for a living?
JULIETTE: Yes. And I always wonder: Am I Theatre or am I Comedy? I used to think I was Theatre, but now I think I’m Comedy.
JOHN: So what do you put on the dating apps as a job?
JULIETTE: ’Journalist’ usually. (LAUGHS) I’m a journalist at heart. My shows are truthful and I don’t like dishonesty generally. One of the problems in saying you are a ‘comedian’, of course, is that you get asked: “Tell us a joke, then!”
JOHN: How do you react?
JULIETTE: I usually tell them that’s like me asking them to act out their job.
JOHN: You also do voice-over work.
JULIETTE: Yes. I have done educational language tapes and sung songs for people learning English as a Foreign Language. I’ve done corporate training videos. I’ve done audio books for children and adults. Usually I do newly-published books.
JOHN: And for the blind…
JULIETTE: I used to do audio books for the RNIB. That’s how I got into voice-over work.
JOHN: Why did you start?
“Do you do all the voices in the erotica…?”
JULIETTE: Two reasons. One is I used to work as a newsreader for BBC Radio, which led into voice-over work. And I also got into audio books because my granny had gone blind by the end of her life but her mind was so sharp and she just used to devour audio books. The local library had to ship in audio books from across the country because she kept getting through them so quickly. I always tried to think about her when I was recording audio books… (LAUGHS) except when doing erotica.
JULIETTE: Exactly. (LAUGHS) Everybody needs to experience the full kaleidoscopic beauty and glory that is being alive.
JOHN: Is it mildly embarrassing?
JULIETTE: Oh yes. Especially when the studio engineer is your ex-fiancé.
JOHN: That happened?
JULIETTE: Yes, And I talk about it in my show. The last erotica book I recorded was just about a month after we broke up, in the middle of the heatwave last year. It was very awkward and we started having arguments about how you pronounce words like EE-THER or EYE-THER in the now-infamous sentence: “He could have licked either of my lactating nipples”… That’s a genuine sentence I had to read.
That book was actually – for erotica – very well researched. But, in all the books I’ve done – maybe 50 or more – I have only done 2 or 3 erotica.
JOHN: Has the voice-over work impacted – a horrible American word – on your stage performances?
JULIETTE: Yes. It has forced me to really get better at my accents. My repertoire has got much stronger with accents in general. Also, when you record audio books, you are speaking to just one person, you are not speaking to a whole audience in a group.
I now like thinking about that when I am on stage. Although it is a whole audience, you are really still just appealing to that one person who is experiencing your show. So it teaches you how to be a bit more personal and personable.
“Shows CAN change your perception…”
I want every single person in the room to feel special. It sounds saccharine. It IS saccharine. But shows CAN change your perception of and perspective on the world and your attitude towards yourself. I have been to shows like that and I want every audience member to leave my shows feeling like they can take on the world and they have more fortitude, more resilience because of the show.
This last year has been a hard one for me. The break-up with my fiancé was the right thing, but it was hard. And I’ve had quite a few recent deaths in my family – and friends – A friend passed away earlier this year. Even my therapist for the last ten years passed away, which I thought was hilarious at the time.
JULIETTE: Because she was the one person I could actually turn to.
The thing that kept me going was the fact I had to perform a show at the Edinburgh Fringe in August. I had to do all my previews before that and there would be audiences out there who needed to laugh about dark things in their lives.
JOHN: You are very likeable, bright and bubbly on stage… Sally Sunshine.
JULIETTE: I hope I’m not too TV kids’ presenter any more because I don’t feel like that any more. I am trying to move away from saccharine stuff.
JOHN: You’ve changed?
JULIETTE: I think so. I think I was quite naive. Now I’ve come down to earth and I’m a bit more grounded. But I still want all my audience to feel like they’re part of a community. When I did that national tour last year, it made me realise the value of a comedy show to help unite groups of complete strangers. If they can laugh about things like mental illness and grief, then they become a kind of community on that one night. Especially in these times when people feel quite divided politically and socially.
JOHN: You were involved in the recent Pride events. Why? You’re not gay.
JULIETTE: Well, sexuality is fluid.
“…where no-one will talk to me…”
JOHN: Fluid is definitely in there, yes.
JULIETTE: I was invited to join in by someone who works for the mental health charity SANE. I ended up wearing an amazing feather headdress on the SANE float and I look completely blissed-out in the photographs – not because I’m feeling super-confident but because I’m thinking, on that float in this crowd of people, Finally I have found somewhere where no-one will talk to me.
JOHN: Why is that good?
JULIETTE: Because I’m a very introverted person.
JOHN: So you don’t like people talking to you…
JULIETTE: Why do you think I stand on stage and hold a microphone for an hour talking at them?
When I am flyering in the street, I think I feel more naked than when I’m on stage. You are more prone to rejection when you’re flyering. I am a very introverted extrovert.
That’s part of what the new show is about. You can be an introverted extrovert. You can be an optimist AND a pessimist. You don’t have to be one thing or the other.
JOHN: But you tend to stand next to the door and chat to the audience as they come in…
JULIETTE: Yes. Because then they are individual, special people who are there for their own experience of the show. They are individuals, not a whole big collective. I want every single person to know they matter because, without those people coming to my shows… It’s all about finding other people who want to hear what I have to say and can relate to what I have to say…
JOHN: You are working on a book. What’s it about?
JULIETTE: How to be relentlessly positive and how to find the light in dark times.
(L-R) The comic Trinity of terrifying Maggy Whitehouse, Satanic Ravi Holy and secretive Kate Bruce
Maggy Whitehouse is a former BBC journalist and Funny Women finalist, described by one head of BBC Religion & Ethics as ‘terrifying’… Ravi Holy is a former Satanist, now a regular on BBC Radio 2’s Pause for Thought; Kate Bruce is a former crematorium worker, now a chaplain somewhere so important that she’s not allowed to say where.
And one was expelled from the Brownies for cheating on her Housework badge. I don’t know which, but suspect it was not Satanic Ravi.
Well, OK, mea culpa, I told a fib… Forgive me Lord… I was only contacted by one vicar – Maggy Whitehouse.
If anyone at the Fringe is LGBTQ and thinks they might get any hassle from stupid religious types (though Edinburgh at the Fringe is generally lovely), Ravi Holy, Kate Bruce and I are the three vicars from White Collar Comedy, performing there this year, 1st-10th August.
We are all three 100% allies of the LGBTQ community and we would all be very willing to act as a “don’t even think about it” bodyguard force for you if you think it might help. We can also out-quote scripture to any fundamentalist twat. Then, at the very least, you could say: “Would you like to speak to my vicar about this?”
Both Ravi and I have gay daughters and we think it’s REALLY important if vicars are going to the Fringe to nail our colours to the mast.
I wanted to know more…
This morning she told me…
“I went to the Fringe two years ago in a rainbow clerical shirt”
I went to the Fringe two years ago in a rainbow clerical shirt and I was amazed and touched at how many people from the LGBTQ community stopped me in the street and said: “Are you really a vicar?” They were so chuffed to see open support when there’s so often badly-researched religious prejudice.
Christianity began as a faith for the rejected, the poor, the slaves, the women and all the people who, in those days, didn’t fit in. It should be a place of love and safety for those who don’t fit in today.
Jesus never once condemned homosexuality, St. Paul’s writings equated it with gossip and being rude to your parents (and who hasn’t done those?) and, anyway, he was talking about the Roman custom of male rape as a power game, not two loving people in a one-to-one relationship.
Where Christianity has gone so badly wrong over the centuries (as we three agree) is by becoming a religion of power and war. That was never Jesus’ message. Trouble is, it’s far easier to worship him (which he never asked us to do) than it is to follow him (which he did ask us to do).
Ravi and I both have daughters who are gay so, yes, it is personal.
We are quite happy to quote the hell out of scripture to anyone who wants to have a go at the LGBTQ community and we really want everyone at the Fringe to know that, if they need help, support or a good scriptural rant, we are there for them.
Obviously we’re not superheroes and we can’t fly directly to help but, if anyone is upset or made to feel they don’t belong, we’ll do all we can to remedy that situation, including – if possible – finding the protagonist and having a quiet, authoritative word.
Contact points? You can email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
UK mobile is 07799-761999 and texts would be by far the best way to contact.
“I suppose,” I told Maggy, “you had better also plug your show White Collar Comedy…”
It’s mainly about the ridiculous things that happen to vicars, from being asked to do a wedding dressed as Elvis or a funeral dressed as a pink fairy (and that’s just Ravi…) to…
…well, Kate has a lot of material about nuns and knickers…
and I re-translate the Bible for the digital age, having Moses clicking on Buzzfeed for the Ten Commandments and selfies of the free Fish McFillet at the Galilee… and I mess about with unicorns.
Then there’s the weird stuff people say to vicars too…
“I can’t hear you properly. Your lips are too thin. You need louder lipstick…”
“Why did you speak out against Hippocrates? What’s he ever done to you?…”